how to regain control of your time and get more done

If you feel like you don’t have enough control over your time, the problem isn’t your calendar – it’s the way you’re looking at the situation.

Even with an overscheduled calendar, you’re still making decisions about how to spend your time and how not to spend it. Realizing that you control how you spend your time – down to each minute! – can be the first step to figuring out how to make better decisions about  how you do and don’t spend your time.

The two key questions to ask yourself are: Are you spending most of your time on your most important priorities? And are you spending time on things that aren’t especially high on your priority list?

If you’re not funneling decisions about how to spend your time through this paradigm, you’ll end up allocating your time by default, rather than being strategic about it. Most people who aren’t vigilant about asking these two questions end up picking the tasks that they enjoy most or that are easiest or that are right in front of them or that feel most pressing in the moment. But those might not be the most important things for you to do, and doing them will keep you from higher-importance items.

Instead, you’ll feel more in control of your time if you make deliberate decisions about what’s most important to you, so that you can ensure that – even if not everything gets done – the things that are the most crucial won’t be the ones that fall by the wayside. For examples, let’s say that today you need to meet with your boss, draft a memo, call back a client, and sign off on a report. The meeting with your boss and drafting the memo are the two most important things to do; if you don’t get them done today, you will have jeopardized a major project at work. But if you’re not managing your time well, you might start off the day talking with the client, spend some time chatting with a coworker, and get drawn into a non-urgent meeting about next month’s sales goals. Then at 4:00 p.m., you might realize that you still haven’t written that memo or met with your boss (who is now tied up in a different meeting).

If you had managed your time differently in this example, you still might not have gotten everything done, but if you’d started the day with clarity about what was most important to accomplish today, you could have met with your boss and drafted the memo first thing in the morning so that your most important work for the day was completed, and maybe you might have chosen to avoid that chat with the coworker and pushed off that sales meeting until another day. You might have ended the day with items remaining on your to-do list, but the most crucial ones with the biggest impact would have been crossed off.

That’s really what time management is all about: getting clear on what’s most important to achieve, and then making sure that the way you’re spending your time reflects those choices.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 11 comments… read them below }

      1. Anon for this

        +1 to both of you. I do consider it professional development (and especially helpful as I’m starting to manage people!), but it’s also what I do when I need a break from whatever’s next on the list–which is great as long as I only read one or two posts and get back to my list, but I don’t always do that…

  1. TCO

    I find that it really helps me to spend five minutes prioritizing my schedule and sorting out my inbox, even on really busy days. It can feel like I can’t afford to spend time organizing stuff, but organizing helps me gain a lot of clarity about my priorities and what’s actually urgent. I am a much more productive worker when I take those five minutes, so I try not to feel bad about taking them.

  2. Lanya

    I turn off email notifications on my outlook, and only check a few times a day. It’s an easy way to remain focused on priorities at work.

    1. OfficePrincess

      I actually do the opposite. So much of what I do is responding to issues as they come up, that I can’t leave my email unchecked for stretches of time. But, with the notifications, I can see the sender and subject line and determine if it’s something I need to handle ASAP or if it can wait until I finish what I’m doing.

      1. LeaderAsCoach

        I would say you’re the exception. For most people email can wait a couple of hours. What happens if you’re in a meeting or at training? Do you check emails then? I’ve seen a lot of people who think they have to respond immediately but don’t. Like I said, you could very well be an exception; I don’t know what you do. A lot of people think this is true for them and it’s not. They just spend all of their free time doing email instead of something more productive.

        Allow 30 minutes for email 3 times a day; get through all of your mail. If an email creates more work, make a work task for that instead of doing it during email time.

  3. SystemsLady

    Great post, and I wish I’d read it 6 months ago. I am on a long-term project right now with a large to-do list scattered throughout several “phases” and levels of importance (sometimes prerequisites for a later phase are more important than work on an imminent phase). With everybody having so much to do, I’m largely managing myself, only requesting help when I need it.

    I doubted it at first, but by far I am most productive when I am doing something that I know for a fact is the most important and urgent thing that needs to be done. No other factor goes into my productivity more than that. Not even the temptation of a particularly good post on a site like AAM :) (which fills my breaks between tasks on a “good productivity” day).

    One hour talking with the project lead when priorities become unclear is far more productive for both of us than perhaps even up to 3 cumulative hours a week of unproductive me staring at the screen and stressing out about whether or not I should be doing what I’m doing now.

    This is also very timely as I’m taking an early lunch break right now. I’m hoping the project lead will respond and schedule a prioritization meeting in the meantime. I’m all over the place again and could really need one.

  4. coffeelover

    Oh, SystemsLady, THANK YOU! I am exactly (and I mean exactly) in your position with a super-big project> and I’m only a project administrator.. no responsibility just responsibilities; And I am also expected to remain calm and polite to noisy chatty colleagues. So I will treat tomorrow as a new start and try to take control of my day, if I can. Thank you Allison as always for truly helpful information.

  5. Artemesia

    Prioritizing is critical — urgent and important are often not the same and important is more important.

    But it is also critical to me to break things into bite size pieces and have things that are quick to do when I get stuck on important difficult tasks. (and a plus if important difficult task can be deconstructed so you can do all the easy parts quickly and thus be getting it done even when stuck).

    This also has a strong psychological effect. If I knock off 3 things quickly it reinforces my efforts to be productive. If I knock off the 5 easy pieces of the big hairy project, I may have 30% of it done when I turn to the more challenging parts. This works particularly well with writing. Write the parts you want to write first and then sort out the rest as you go.

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